Over two thousand years, the church has been spectacularly successful in imitating Jesus's disciples in all their worst qualities. Arguing, running away from difficult issues, and entirely failing to grasp what He was going on about are precisely what the disciples spent a lot of time doing two thousand years ago, and that noble tradition is maintained to this day. Bach's cantata this week takes its starting point as one of those moments where the disciples become more confused than a blogger desperately searching for a witty metaphor.
We start slightly unexpectedly. There's no instrumental movement to ease the listener in before hitting them with some hard-edged theology, or even a rousing chorus. Instead, the bass sings one of the most confusing things Jesus ever said to his disciples. It's the night before his trial and Crucifixion. He's been dropping hints about how tomorrow isn't going to end well. And then He hits the disciples with the bombshell: “Es ist euch gut, daß ich hingehe; denn so ich nicht hingehe, kömmt der Tröster nicht zu euch”. “It is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Comforter will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.”. In the text of John's gospel, the response of the disciples comes a few verses later, but it's basically along the lines of “Eh? Who? What? How?” And who can blame them? It's at best a bittersweet promise that somebody- some form of guide, or comforter- will somehow turn up, but Jesus is definitely dashing off. And even more oddly, we're supposed to be happy about this. It's all apparently for their own good; this Comforter figure can only turn up when Jesus is gone. The music's mood lifts at the words “so ich aber gehe will ich ihn zu euch senden”- if I go, I will send him to you- and we even hear some little fanfare-like flourishes from the strings.
That sense of reassuring comfort in the opening movement comes through best to me in Masaaki Suzuki's recording with Bach Collegium Japan (http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Performers/Suzuki-Rec2.htm#C36). The archive recording from 1950 conducted by Karl Ristenpart with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as bass soloist also has some of that magisterial calm, and the strings play with a chamber delicacy that you might not expect from a recording that old (http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Performers/Ristenpart.htm#C5). But then the oboe in this recording sounds a touch sour, and dare I say it – just plain flat. By contrast, John Eliot Gardiner and the English Baroque Soloists' version of the opening of the cantata is lithe and crisp as you might expect (http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Performers/Gardiner-Rec4.htm#P24). To me, however, the bass soloist just sounds edgy and almost tentative. Maybe it's supposed to be a depiction of the nervousness of the Last Supper- or maybe the unending grind of the great Cantata Pilgrimage of 2000 was starting to show a little bit on Gardiner's forces.
There's a tiny hint in the music here as to what is going on with this mysterious Comforter figure. In terms of sheer twiddliness (a technical musical term...), the two biggest flourishes Bach gives the bass in the first movement are on the words “hingehe”- go away, and “senden”- send. Counting it up, there are 62 quavers, semiquavers and demisemiquavers on the single syllable “geh” of hingehe alone. Senden is marginally less mammoth, with a mere 55 notes on the syllable “sen”. The effect of this is that the words leap out of the texture as a unique pair, the Baroque equivalent of a musical highlighter pen. The sending of the Comforter isn't just something that happens to take place after the going away of Jesus. Just like those twin gorgeous Baroque twiddly flourishes, the one mirrors the other in the story of salvation.
And the tenor's aria and recitative that follows takes us closer to the answer. Musically, it's not just a melody with an accompaniment as a lesser composer might write. Instead, there are three more or less equal parts with their own life. The tenor is actually the middle part; the violin rises above him and the bass instruments in the continuo give little encouraging pushes to the message of comfort and reassurance. Again, I found Suzuki's recording most persuasive in this movement; they phrase the little “da-DA-dum-dum” figures in the bass particularly charmingly. By comparison, Karl Richter's recording with the Munich Bach Orchestra and Choir (http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Performers/Richter.htm#C2 ) lacks any of that sensitive phrasing. At times it sounds blowsy, the way choral societies used to sing Handel. His tenor, Ernst Haefliger also is surprisingly uncomfortable, with a noticeable change in gear as moves into his upper register. So Suzuki wins again for me.
But in terms of the actual message of the cantata, the crucial words come in the little section of recitative after the aria. The tenor has already soothed his spirit with the idea that even though Jesus is departing he will still be comforted (“Ich glaube, gehst du fort, So kann ich mich getrösten”). But after the aria ends, a disturbing thought strikes him: “Durch deinen Hingang kommt er ja zu mir, Ich frage sorgensvoll: Ach, ist er nicht schon hier?”- “if through Your (Jesus's) departure, He (the Comforter) will come to me, I ask, full of concern: is he not here yet?”
It's a good point. Jesus is very definitely not around any more (at least, not in the way he walked around Palestine about 30 A.D.). So why haven't we got a shiny new replacement Comforter figure? And we still haven't quite bottomed out who he or she is anyway. But Bach very subtly gives us the answer in the next chorus. Like the first movement, it's a quotation from the words of Jesus at the Last Supper. But crucially, it's not given to a solo bass this time; instead, its given to the chorus. Moreover, each part repeats the words individually as part of an imitative fugue. It's as if each member of the community is remembering Jesus for himself and thus calling to mind his presence. By the individuals remembering him, the community re-members the presence of Jesus- that is to say, they bring it back into being. And, crucially, this is confirmed by the very words they are singing: “Denn er wird nicht vom ihm selber reden, sondern was er hören wird, das wird er reden”- “He (the Comforter) will not speak of himself, but that which he has heard, that will he speak”. And the disciples, the members of the community, the singers in the sublime fugal dance are doing just that. They are telling the story which they have heard; they are remembering the presence of Jesus; and the Comforter is present.
The chorus ends with a change of gear; the words “wird er verkundigen”- he will proclaim- take on greater excitement, and we are launched into the alto aria, which keeps the momentum and feeling of joy. But these last two movements are essentially the emotional working out of what has gone before- individual comfort leads to communal joy.
Ultimately, Bach is pointing to what the Comforter really is: the presence of Jesus after he has gone away from his followers, brought about by their song and their mutual communion. He is in them, and they are in him; and they are all together. As that occasionally slightly ropey theologian John Lennon said in I am the Walrus: I am He and He is Me and We are All Together. Goo goo g'joob!